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RI FOOD & DINING

What it takes: Region’s lauded chefs say they learned it working at pizza joint in high school

Their careers intertwined since they worked together for early mentor Walter Slater, Kevin O’Donnell and Will Rietzel are teaming up once again, this time at Giusto in Newport

From left Kevin O’Donnell chef and owner of Giusto, Walter Slater, executive chef of Food Love Market in Middletown, and Will Rietzel, executive chef of Giusto, at Giusto in Newport, R.I., on Nov. 22.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

For teenagers, a job in high school at a local pizza joint can provide valuable early work experience. For lauded Rhode Island chefs Kevin O’Donnell and William “Will” Rietzel — both James Beard Award semifinalists — working together as teens at a North Kingstown pizzeria forged a friendship, and inextricably intertwined their culinary paths.

In October, Rietzel was named executive chef of Giusto, the restaurant O’Donnell opened in late 2020 at Hammetts Hotel in Newport. It was a natural fit, said O’Donnell. Since their days at Junction Pizzeria, he said, the two have worked in tandem: O’Donnell cut his teeth there as a cook, while Rietzel got his start as a dishwasher. In that kitchen, they met an early mentor who would change the course of their lives.

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“I think what probably both set us up and made us stay was Walter. Walter Slater was the chef and owner, and a mentor to us both,” said O’Donnell. A veteran Rhode Island chef and restaurateur, Slater has helmed multiple kitchens for Newport Restaurant Group for nearly 14 years, currently leading the company’s Foodlove Market in Middletown.

But two decades ago at the pizzeria, which has since closed, the future chefs learned through Slater’s example what it takes to run a restaurant: how to train employees, the importance of fundamentals like timeliness, communication and organization — and that nothing is “below” you as a chef.

Slater “had such a way with people, a way of teaching, that it made you want to do it,” Rietzel said.

“One of the most important jobs of a chef is training young cooks, and it’s very gratifying to see them succeed,” said Slater. “As a young chef, just 25, I had no problem teaching cooks everything I knew, but most important was a good work ethic.”

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These are principles O’Donnell relies on today at Giusto and at Mother Pizzeria, which he opened in Newport in July with co-owners and Giusto alums, general manager Lauren Schaefer and executive chef Kyle Stamps, another Junction Pizzeria alumnus Slater praises.

Chef Kevin O’Donnell opened Mother Pizzeria in Newport this summer with co-owners executive chef Kyle Palmer and front-of-house manager Lauren Schaefer. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

And O’Donnell will bring that same ethos to “Giusto PVD” and “Mother Pizzeria PVD” at Track 15 food hall in Providence, which opens next summer.

Slater recalls the two novices lacked experience, but had potential. “I saw them quickly learn the menu and be able to work all stations. Even back then, you could see the passion they had for food. As a cook and a chef, you never stop learning. I think the two of them epitomize this.”

After high school, Rietzel and O’Donnell started to blaze their own trails. Slater, a Johnson & Wales alum, challenged O’Donnell’s longtime aversion to college, and in 2004, the burgeoning chef enrolled in the university’s continuing education program on weekends, allowing him to work full time and stay out of debt. An externship in Italy solidified his pursuit of a culinary career, and he spent two years as a sous chef — a kitchen’s second-in-command — at Ristorante Zeppelin, in the Umbria region. During time off, he’d scout the specialty dishes of the country’s other regions, building comprehensive knowledge of myriad Italian cuisines.

Returning stateside, O’Donnell and Rietzel reunited, crossing paths at a handful of local restaurants before O’Donnell headed to New York City in 2010 to assume the role of sous chef at Del Posto, lauded for fine dining. In 2011, he was invited to be the executive chef (the head chef, also known as the chef de cuisine) for a restaurant opening in Paris. Once getting settled at L’Office, a French-American bistro, O’Donnell reached out to Rietzel, who was, serendipitously, cooking at the much-loved but now closed French restaurant in Newport, Tucker’s Bistro.

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O’Donnell convinced Rietzel to take advantage of the opportunity, a three-month gig. “I know he’s ambitious and wants to cook great food, travel, and learn; similar to what I enjoy, similar goals,” O’Donnell said. While there, the two explored French food culture wholeheartedly, discovering local markets and fromageries, and dining at every restaurant they could before heading back to their small restaurant kitchen to develop recipes and cook nightly. “A lot of it was learning by being immersed there. We didn’t have a chef that was teaching us. We were the chefs. Our boss was the owner of the restaurant, the front of the house guy, so we developed everything,” said O’Donnell.

They brought that synergy back to Boston, when O’Donnell took a job at The Salty Pig in 2012 and called on Rietzel to be the restaurant’s sous chef. “Talent, ambition, experience, humble, just all the good things that you want in a colleague and co-worker,” is what makes Rietzel exceptional, said O’Donnell. The restaurant thrived, launching a charcuterie program and introducing homemade pasta under their tutelage while garnering praise. In 2016, The Salty Pig’s owner wanted to expand and open a Venetian-inspired restaurant and wine bar, SRV, affording O’Donnell the opportunity to be a co-executive chef with Chef Michael Lombardi, and a partner in the business as well. A year later, SRV was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards’ “Best New Restaurant.”

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James Beard semifinalist Will Rietzel, best known for helming the kitchen at Coast at the Ocean House in Watch Hill, has been named executive chef at Giusto in Newport. Kendall Pavan

Rietzel, meanwhile, who had sharpened his fine dining skills throughout his culinary journey, joined Coast, a Forbes five-star restaurant at Ocean House in Watch Hill in 2015. He started as a line cook, a role that typically focuses on one particular station of the kitchen, quickly rising through the ranks to sous chef and ultimately, chef de cuisine. Last year, Rietzel was named a semifinalist for the 2022 James Beard Award in the “Best Chef in the Northeast” category.

It wasn’t long after O’Donnell opened Mother Pizzeria with Stamps and Schafer this past summer — at the peak of Newport’s busiest season — that he called on Rietzel once more. “I’ve been planting the seed with Will for a while,” he laughed. “We really wanted somebody to help [Giusto] continue to blossom and grow, and make it the best restaurant that we can make for ourselves. We always look to ourselves to ask, ‘How can we be better than we were yesterday, and how can we just keep pushing this restaurant forward?’ Will is the best person that I can think of.”

The restaurant publicly announced Rietzel’s appointment as executive chef in October. Rietzel said he acclimated to Giusto right away. “It felt seamless. I walked in and a lot of what Kevin had put in place and what the team had built over the past few years was exactly what I’ve worked with and seen in Kevin over the past 15 years of knowing him,” said Rietzel. “It just felt right.”

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The "Scotch meatball," Giusto's riff on Scotch eggs.Angel Tucker

O’Donnell said he sees himself in a supportive role at Giusto moving forward, and the menu there will continue to be a collaborative effort with the entire culinary team. Committed to serving seasonal dishes, the menu is constantly evolving, but diners can still expect Giusto’s most popular dishes, including the Scotch meatball, squid ink tempura calamari with capers and cherry peppers, and the ricotta frittelle — pillowy, lightly fried cheese balls topped with grated truffle and parmesan, drizzled with truffle honey.

Steamed littlenecks at Giusto restaurant in Newport. Angel Tucker

Rietzel has an affinity for seafood, so diners can also expect more elevated but playful seafood dishes to be introduced in the future. Capitalizing on Rietzel’s experience at Coast, O’Donnell expects Giusto will host more wine dinners and culinary events, starting on Dec. 7, when the restaurant will host its first wine dinner with Rietzel at the helm, in partnership with GD Vajra winery from Piedmont, Italy. The five-course menu inspired by Piedmont cuisine will feature six different wines.

“Will is extremely talented. In a lot of ways, he’s a better chef, is better at things than I am,” O’Donnell said. “I wouldn’t want to hire a chef that couldn’t execute better than me in some things, otherwise I’d just do the job myself. ... I want to make it better. So how do I make it better? Hire an amazing chef.”